Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hit The Ground Running

During the latter part of the campaign, and all through the transition period, Barack Obama promised to “hit the ground running” on Day 1 of his presidency. So far, he has shown himself to be a man of his word. In the first week of his presidency, he has:

- Issued an order to a close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo ― transition plan to be worked out;
- Approved individual states to require higher mpg ratings on cars – finally truly calling the automobile pollution question in spite of the inevitable doomsdayers;
- Reestablished long-standing rules for interrogation including a no-torture commitment – back to the rule of international law and agreements;
- Presented an $850B economic stimulus plan – a strong reaction to a real need, but risky over the potential for more Christmas tree spending;
- Requested the release of the 2nd half of the TARP financial industry bailout money – with promises of newer and stronger controls and oversight (controls that are certainly needed);
- Appointed highly qualified high-level special envoys to the Middle East and to Afghanistan – who are already on the ground working;
- Gave his first official post-inaugural interview to a Saudi Arabian television station – a first to open that essential dialog (as Nixon was to China, could Obama be to the Middle east?);
- Approved funding for international organizations that include abortion in their birth control practices – attempting to take the politics out of health science;
- Gave the order to military leaders to plan for withdrawal from Iraq – detailed plan to come;
- gave the order to increase troop deployment in Afghanistan where the real terrorist war began but has not ended – troops hopefully to be used more wisely than we did in Iraq;
- Reinvigorated the State Department and the role of diplomacy – hopefully an end to arrogant, cowboy, shoot-first diplomacy;
- Signed his first legislative bill guaranteeing equal pay for equal work – long overdue and unarguable;
- Established a new Code of Ethics for the Executive Branch – the first application aimed at unethical and illegal activities at the Department of Interior during the past few years.

As respected CNN commentator David Gergen said recently, “All of these back-to-back initiatives reflect a huge ambition to remake America, if not the world.” Remake it to exactly where, we do not yet clearly know. But as the old joke says, “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re sure making great time!”

A 66% public approval rating thus far notwithstanding, I expect it will be a pretty short political honeymoon for President Obama. A “0” vote of House Republicans on the $850B stimulus bill does not bode well for the bi-partisanship we all need, even if some of their complaints were justified. The partisan left is already complaining that their agenda has not been accomplished yet (after 1 week!); the partisan right is already pointing to the first chunks of sky falling to the ground. Fox News is absolutely adrift at sea and more irrelevant than ever, still paying homage to G.W. Bush and looking for conspiracies and evil headlines behind every Democratic door. Rush Limbaugh gave up his last shred of decency when he openly said that he “Wants Obama to fail.” In my worst days of frustration and disagreement with George W., I never hoped he would fail. Because any president’s failure is a failure for us all.

Yes, the devil is in the details. And the Choir of the Church of the Hyper-Negative is already complaining that Obama’s actions are “all symbolism and no details.” Truth is, I do not want details from Obama. That is why a President has an executive White House team and a whole Executive Branch of government (which still includes the Vice President, Dick Cheney’s opinion notwithstanding!). That is where the planning details will come from, with the execution details from thousands of government foot soldiers. What I want from my President is clarity about and commitment to the directions, goals, overall strategies, principles, and ground-rules to be followed. If we can get together on these, we will move forward in spite of many natural disagreements on the specifics and the minutiae. I could never get together with Bush on the strategies, so Guantanamo, Iraq, illegal surveillance, and disregard for constitutional law were just the ugly specifics to fundamental disagreements. And his foot soldiers were running all over everywhere without unifying principles to hold them together. In recent memory, and notwithstanding your personal political persuasions, only John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton really understood the role of presidential leadership and articulated well the leadership of principles. (And only Clinton was able to successfully combine mastery of detail with leadership.)

So one week gone of an Obama presidency. 207 more weeks to go in this term. Given the fundamental assault on the status quo that is emerging, it looks like it is going to be a hell of a ride, with lots to talk about for and against. I may have to increase the frequency of these blog postings just to keep up and be topically relevant and timely. That may be the worst news of all for both you and me.

In the end, hopefully we will not only have made great time, but we will also know where we are truly going. So far, it seems to be a better place that we’ve been, even if there are a few cracks in the new home’s woodwork.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Transfer of National Power

Today we witnessed that uniquely American quadrennial ritual of the transfer of power from one president to another. This transfer is a mix of law, of ritual, of history, of custom, and of extreme pageantry. And there is no parallel to it anywhere else in the world.

For full pageantry within deep tradition, one can only look to the few remaining monarchies in this world, principally the English monarchy and the Japanese royal throne. But these are transitions initiated by death, ascended to only by the right of birth.

Unlike the United States, most countries follow a parliamentary system of government modeled after modern-day Great Britain. A ceremonial head of state with greater or lesser authority is invested in its President. A political leader with real governing authority is vested separately in its Prime Minister, who is also usually the leader of his/her political party. In America, we seemingly sadistically vest all of these responsibilities onto the shoulders of one President, the only major-power country to do so.

For all of its perhaps showy, if not gaudy, celebration, the American inaugural ceremony is also an important testament. It is a re-demonstration of America at its best, a reaffirmation about what is truly most important about America. This restatement of America at the level of its values, character and convictions is important. It is a message important not only to Americans, but also to the world. It is a message that abstract philosophies can be made practical, diversity of beliefs can come together for a greater good, political stability can be achieved, and human rights and the equality of the common man and woman can be advanced over time.

Unlike some places, America’s transfer of power is regular. There is no arbitrariness or guesswork about it. It happens at 12 noon on January 20th every four years in the year after those years evenly divided by 4. Unless that schedule is interrupted by death, in which case interim succession is spelled out in extensive depth and detail. And one person can only succeed him-/herself once. That is pretty specific, very regularized. We all know what is forthcoming.

This transfer is orderly. The mechanisms and processes are fully delineated in law, known ahead of time by all. It is not a question of political timing or perceived advantage or military intervention or votes of “lack of confidence.” If there is some dispute regarding how the law is observed, the legal path to resolution is preset. Even if I may disagree with the outcome of this process, I retain faith in and respect for that process. The law may unfortunately take awhile to catch up to full inclusion (e.g. by race, by gender), but our history has shown a steady march towards fulfilling our declared goal of “liberty and justice for all.”

Our transfer is timely. With four noted exceptions within 220 years (Jefferson in 1800, John Quncy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, and G.W. Bush in 2000), Americans vote and the results are known timely. Even when horse-trading or court clarification was needed in these there exceptions, the country was answered within a short time. Clarified in time for the scheduled inauguration day. Bitter lingering feelings, perhaps; but we moved on to the important business of governing. When an internal war between the states was fought over whether we could pick and choose to abide by an election outcome, that option was decisively rejected 144 years ago. So we all hang in there with each other, respect the process, and work out our needs and problems together.

Our legacy, a legacy we continue to share with the world as a living example, is to affirm that we are a nation not of the person but of structure, form, and institutions. Great and not-so-great people have given their service, and we have alternated between greatness and mediocrity. At times we have needed arms to enforce our laws, but we have never used arms to make our laws by force. However convoluted at times, however frustrating or seemingly remote government may feel, however abused the public trust has been, our country is still a working collective synthesis of millions of individuals and diverse beliefs. Because our faith and respect for our heritage and institutions transcend our faith in any one individual.

The story is told that during Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime inaugural the daughter of General George Marshall (our nation’s top general during WW II) refused to stand when President Roosevelt’s procession drove by. She remained seated to demonstrate her disagreement, if not dislike, of Roosevelt the man. Her father, a man of impeccable integrity and loyalty to his country, stood and said to his daughter, “We are not standing to honor Franklin Roosevelt. We are standing to honor the President of the United States of America.”
She stood. As we all similarly stand today to honor a new President who just happens to be named Barack Obama. Who happens to be different in certain ways from many other Americans. With whom we may agree or disagree on many specifics. But in whom we will respect the office he temporarily holds on our behalf, in whose successes or failures we will all share, and through whom our Republic will continue to demonstrate the continuing fulfillment of all that can be possible.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Failure Of Partitioning

We have recently witnessed the latest chapter in the Israeli/Palestinian 60-year war of attempted attrition. It looks pretty much like all the other chapters, with slight variations of the direct players involved and the usual alignment of sideline speech-makers. We have seen and heard it all before. Nobody really listening, nobody learning anything new. With some certainty we can reasonably predict the outcome after a few weeks of fighting and death: further loss of America’s credibility as an objective broker in the region; disproportionate deaths in Palestinian populations vis-à-vis Israel; land taken and then returned, but with much of it significantly destroyed; continuing threats and unachievable preconditions stated that work against any realistic chance for peace. Then the cycle starts again. No matter whose side you may lean towards, the net end result is a continual never-ending stalemate.

Some continue to try to paint this intractable conflict as a fight of good versus evil, Western versus Arab, Christian (with Jewish surrogate) versus Muslim – ignoring the holy land status of Jerusalem to all three impacted religions. Yet the true fight continues to be one of land: ownership, legacy, rightful tradition. On that score, all are historically accurate, yet we continue to refuse to work this real problem of “land and home” against its true historical source.

What this conflict truly exemplifies is the continuing failure of land partitions that are created by foreign bodies over existing residents without their say. The partition of land into an Israeli state was done around the same time as the independence and creation of India/Pakistan/Bangladesh after World War 2. Iraq was cobbled together by European powers after World War 1, the same time that Ireland was finally granted independence but Northern Ireland was artificially separated out as “British.” Afghanistan is an imaginary border surrounding numerous independent mountain tribes with no real sense of “country” or central government. Even in America, we supposedly disallowed secession 150 years ago, yet the after-affects remain to this day in both subtle and overt forms.

Czechoslovakia once forced together is now back to two separate countries. India and Pakistan, now nuclear armed, continue a sporadic war that started on day 1 of their partitioning. Northern Ireland’s peace continues to hold but remains touch and go. A number of Eastern European countries are currently looking to separate into smaller independent units based upon history and culture. It they are smart, each larger controlling country will simply let them go and allow common cultures and peoples to regroup themselves accordingly.

Artificially induced borders never win. People do not surrender their land and their ancestry voluntarily to the dictates of outsiders. They simply become a sore that will not heal, festering potentially for centuries until its artificiality finally collapses. Long-term, partitioning (or merger) only works when local people choose it. Joe Biden’s earlier proposal to partition Iraq among the three ethnic groups will ultimately prove correct, because (however forced) they have already virtually accomplished the regrouping themselves.

If peace, personal security and economic well-being can be guaranteed, small countries need not fear for their existence. They can thereby get on with the business of their own nation-building, embraced by a world ready to receive and support them. But the controlling country is not capable of providing such securities, not Israel, Russia, Georgia, or others. With what little influence we still have left in this world, this is where America should push its efforts and resources in conjunction with other countries. Jumping over the local parochial arguments of the combatants that will never get resolved, getting beyond “who is right,” but instead helping all peoples to build their lives. Equal pressure and equal reward for both, without prejudice. If peace shows no reward, then there is no incentive and we consign people to the allure of warriors on both sides. If we do not like Hamas, then we need to stop playing into their hands by demonizing them and leaving them seen as the only choice for their people; if we truly support Israel, then we need to stop supporting their continuing actions as a malevolent conqueror.
In the spirit of the Camp David accord of 30 years ago, who will have the courage to come forward and break this dead-end cycle?

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Year Reflection - 2008/2009

2008 will probably not go into my annual memory book with a smiley face attached. In one way or another, it has been kind of a tough year for almost all of us.

The most glaring 2008 book entry is the economic chapter, as was recently confirmed when I got my yearend 401K investment report summary. I had to remind myself that it is my choice whether I will focus on the 25% drop in value from its year-ago high point (still somewhat better than the overall market drop of 33%), or be thankful that 75% of it was still there. Given all of the people out of work and/or out of their homes these days, I will choose to remain thankful.

The dressing down of a number of overly-paid incompetent business executives is a right exercise to see. But the scene of the three major auto executives begging for a $35B “bailout” (i.e. handout) is still a sad commentary on this proud country’s entrepreneurial status. Wrong-doers must be identified, held accountable rather than rewarded, and punished when appropriate. But we must not lose sight of those business people still doing good and responsible work, nor be reduced to seeing negativity and conspiracies behind every door.

The Iraq war is relatively quiet, finally. But I question whether it is still just a “quiet before the storm,” waiting for old tribal loyalties and/or religious divisions to explode later. And will we just transfer the casualty counts over to Afghanistan – an ancient unconquerable country that has continually swallowed and humiliated numerous great powers over the centuries?

$4.50/gallon gas demonstrated clearly how much the American people are the butt-ends of financial speculators. With the inexplicable spiral to $140/barrel now back to $40/barrel, the old fundamental law of supply and demand was clearly put to the grave: a 250% increase in price had no connection to any quid-pro-quo percentage increase in oil usage. The power of these speculators to whiplash this country around their greed was on full display. It is hard to feel too much pity for the last-minute suckers who bought in at $140.

As we peer around the corner into 2009, there are some important small seeds of promise to see. Mt. Saint Helena exploded a few years ago and buried the ground in volcanic ash, destruction as far as could be seen. Yet one year later sprouts of grass and new trees were popping up through the layers of ash and rock from that disaster. Hopefully we can see the potential of similar new growth peeking from the ashes of our current doom.

Politically, we have set a dramatically different stage vis-à-vis the darkened theater of the past eight years. There is much potential good for us within this restaging, but it is not a promise. It may prove to be an unfulfilled potential. Done right, by a right-spirited citizenry at all levels working to forgo some short-term self-interest, good things could bloom. We will have to wait and see.

If our individual spending sprees get reined in, and people go back to the “traditional value” of living within their means, concentrating on growing their incomes instead of growing spending, our cumulative financial health – as well as our ethical values – will significantly improve. But this is not a short-term economic cure. Do we now have the will and discipline to stay on this New Year’s resolution for a financial diet?

After five years of war, do we have the stomach for a newly expanded initiative in Afghanistan? Our moral purpose and justification there may be far improved over our Iraq misadventure. But we are still an outsider in a very foreign land with its own very different history and culture. We do not have a good history of understanding and respecting other cultures. As this past week’s latest episode in the 60-year Israeli/Palestinian war reminds us, current wars do not easily solve old unresolved conflicts or long-lasting hatreds, and “right” does not live exclusively with only one side.

2008 has had a number of good memories and milestones for me personally. I will choose to remember these gold deposits found within the overall muddiness of the year. And so will it be with 2009, so I need to be prepared for the mud yet expect and celebrate the gold strikes when they are found. And make my own contributions to the potential blooms poking through this economic ash. Contributions of patience to await good outcomes that will take time, commitment to help create some of those outcomes, tolerance for ideas and beliefs different from my own, dialog to find resolutions of differences, and faith in the inherent goodness of my neighbor.

Happy New Year to all.